Bodo terrorists launched coordinated attacks in India’s northeast state of Assam on 23 December, killing over 75 people. The move has the possibility of deepening tensions between the patchwork of ethnic and religious groups residing in the distant region, and has already led to over 80,000 people fleeing their homes for safety. New Delhi promptly responded by imposing a curfew and deploying 9,000 regular and paramilitary units to hunt down the remaining terrorists, some of whom are thought to be based abroad in Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar, thus necessitating that the Indian government work with its neighbors in order to succeed in its anti-terror operation. Other than the obvious social-political interests at stake, Bodo terrorism (embodied as simultaneously being ethnic, religious, and successionist in nature) threatens to upend deeper regional economic cooperation as manifested by the forthcoming India-ASEAN Highway and the BCIM Trade Corridor.
Southeast Asia’s Forgotten Corner
Northeast India sits at the confluence of China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Bhutan, connected to the rest of the country only by the vulnerable 14-mile-wide (at its narrowest) strip of land called the Siliguri Corridor, itself a legacy of the complicated 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan along religious grounds. The concept of the partition was to place Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan (including Bangladesh, which was regarded as East Pakistan at the time), but things didn’t precisely work out as anticipated and many Muslims remained in Indian territory.
Concerning the region of focus, these were mostly of the Bengali ethnic group, who, through a combination of high birth rates and illegal immigration, came to outnumber some of the local tribes in the area, forming the core of the contemporary problem. The Bodos, a largely Hindu ethnic group in Northern Assam between the Bhutanese and Bengali borders, are under the perception that their land has been stolen by illegal Muslim immigrants who are threatening to exterminate their culture. Upset at the government for historically ignoring the region (both economically and politically), some of them subsequently took up arms to fight for either an independent or largely autonomous Bodo state.
The Beginning Of The Bodo War
Having agitated on and off since the 1930s, the Bodos enacted a sustained campaign in the 1980s to pursue their political demands, eventually culminating in the Bodoland Autonomous Council Act of 1993 that gave them a sub-autonomous status within Assam. This administrative privilege didn’t assuage the more radical elements such as the Christian-dominated National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Hindu-dominated Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) (both designated as terrorist groups by the Indian government), however, who largely continued their insurgency for another decade until the February 2003 Memorandum of Settlement on Bodoland Territorial Council. Through the agreement, the BLTF disarmed and disbanded in exchange for the Bodos gaining even more autonomy through the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council organization, which was basically an expanded version of the entity first created in 1993.
Meanwhile, the Indian military partnered up with its Bhutanese counterparts to launch Operation All Clear in December 2003 to clear the Himalayan state of all remaining insurgent camps hidden in the dense jungles along its southern border, including those of renegade BLTF holdouts and the then-still hostile NDFB. Two years later in 2005, the NDFB signed a ceasefire but did not disband, and since then it has split into two factions, NDFB(Progressive) and NDFB(R). The latter group fractured even further when Ingti Kathar Songbijit, one of its military commanders, had a falling out with the leadership in 2012 and left to establish his own splinter movement known as NDFB(S). This ultra-fringe terrorist group is linked to the 2012 Assam Riots between Bodos and Muslims that claimed the lives of dozens and left nearly 400,000 homeless. NDFB(S) also happens to be the group responsible for last week’s killings.
As the information is beginning to filter out, it appears as though Songbijit purposely targeted native Christian Adivasi tribespeople (and not Bengali Muslims) as a form of retaliation against a government crackdown on him and his group since August (although some could say it began as early as last December). The specific villages were selected because of their proximity to the Bhutanese border, where it is suspected the militants fled after carrying out the attack (some are also thought to have gone to Bangladesh). The Indian government also believes that Songbijit may be hiding in Myanmar, thus meaning that a domestic terrorist attack in one state has now turned into a quadrilateral crisis, hence why India’s Operation All Out (in some ways the successor to Operation All Clear) aims to directly involve all three bordering nations while keeping China informed of its activities.
Operation All Out and the resultant aftermath of the NDFB(S) terrorist attacks are set to have far-reaching effects in the region, quite possibly of a destabilizing nature.
Coordinated Strikes and Cross-Border Raids:
Most immediately, India will likely work with its neighbors (as it currently is in the process of doing) in order to carry out coordinated strikes against Bodo militants based abroad in Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar. Owing to the weakness of Thimphu’s forces, India may also involve itself in a joint raid inside Bhutan, much as it did during 2003’s Operation All Clear. Things get a bit trickier with Bangladesh and Myanmar, however, since the Indian military does not have cooperative relations with either, and it’s anticipated that both would be absolutely against any Indian presence on their territory. Thus, they may carry out their own coordinated strikes against the Bodo militants wherever possible, and it is unlikely that India will behave unilaterally in targeting them outside of its sovereign territory, especially in Bangladesh.
The only possible scenario where this may arise is in Myanmar if the country’s military is unable to adequately project power in the border region of Sagaing where Songbijit is thought to be hiding out. This area has historically been used for launching militant attacks in Northeast India, making it a hotbed of insurgency for a variety of transnational armed groups. If the Indians think that they kill or capture Songbijit and the authorities in Myanmar are reluctant or unable to help with this (perhaps because he struck some sort of alliance with one of the myriad anti-government groups in the country, and a military offensive there could shatter the fragile ‘cold peace’), then they could ‘go it alone’ and attempt a cross-border strike without permission, which could then erupt into a full-fledged bilateral crisis regardless of whether it succeeds in neutralizing one of India’s most wanted terrorists.
A Pattern Of Violence Against the Bengali Muslim Minority And Their Inevitable Reaction:
In recent years, it appears as though a pattern of violence against the Bengali Muslim minority has taken root in this forgotten corner of Southeast Asia. The 2012 Assam Riots in India were directed against this group, just as were the Rakhine State ones in Myanmar that year too, the latter of which have consistently continued until this day. The underlying ‘justification’ for the violence is almost identical in both cases, since the native non-Muslim population feels threatened by what they view to be (illegal) Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. The recent NDFB(S) terrorist attacks, although not targeting Bengali Muslims, most certainly sent a signal to them of what can happen if they don’t leave the area, in an unspoken threat of identity cleansing. Thus, when looked at back-to-back, it certainly seems that the Bengali Muslim minority in India and Myanmar are being targeted for whatever reason, which will likely result in the group establishing some kind of counter-response in the future.
One of the most probable possibilities is that they will form vigilante defensive formations in both countries as they seek to protect themselves and their communities. Being located in an extremely porous border region ripe with instability as it is (historically coming from Myanmar), it is very likely that they will be able to procure weapons for their cause, to say nothing of militants and drugs to help them fight and finance their struggle. Whichever form it takes, the moment the Muslim Bengali communities in India and Myanmar come together for ostensibly defensive purposes, fears will be raised in New Delhi, Naypyidaw, and their respective regional centers closer to the action that these groups are acting as proxies for Dhaka, thus resulting in a (hyper-)nationalist (armed) reaction by the locals.
The seemingly inevitable cycle of violence that this would perpetuate and the real threat of identity cleansing would then demand an official Bengali response (whether in word or in deed), whether or not it was using these groups as its actual proxies in the first place. The resultant asymmetrical security dilemma could then descend to the point where close Chinese-ally Bangladesh and its ethnic associates are treated as regional pariahs, while India and Myanmar tighten their cooperation against this new ‘threat’. In this case, the India-ASEAN Highway would live but the BCIM Trade Corridor would die, and China’s relations with India and Myanmar could find themselves further strained in the long run.
The Myanmar Effect:
The Bodo terrorist attacks have the possibility of setting off a chain reaction of ethnic warfare by rekindling the disparate successionist movements of the ‘Seven Sisters’ in Northeast India. Assam, the state in which the Bodoland conflict is taking place, abuts all of the other states in the region, so any destabilization there can obviously radiate outward to the others. Also, Songbijit is reportedly hiding out in Myanmar, well past the proposed Bodo homeland, yet he’s been able to call the shots and manage militants in Assam (which does not connect to the country). This means that the possibility is surely there that his social and physical terrorist network traverses one or some of the neighboring Indian states en route to the conflict zone, and since he’s supposedly based in an area that is a hotbed of different anti-Indian insurgent groups, he could have some kind of cooperation with them in transporting material and personnel to Bodoland. His terrorist attack last week might even serve as a motivator for some of them to restart their anti-government operations, depending on how the Indian response plays out.
If this happened, then it would in effect closely replicate the structure of Myanmar’s Civil War, in which a slew of minority ethnic groups on the country’s periphery fiercely battle against the central government in order to achieve independence or extreme autonomy. It could possibly be worse, however, because of the Siliguri chokehold that strongly controls New Delhi’s projection of force in the region. Pro-independence militants could carry out terrorist attacks against the vulnerable infrastructure there that connects the Northeast to the rest of India, thus dealing a heavy blow to government counter-operations, especially if the successionists (however unlikely) reach some kind of short-term accommodation to work together to expel the central authorities. A major nightmare scenario would occur if successionists in both India and Myanmar link up and engage in a semi-coordinated campaign against their respective governments. Although this presents the least likely scenario, its repercussions would be profound, and it could also create a Black Hole of Chaos that sucks in Bangladesh and China.
Last week’s Bodo terrorist attacks could open up a Pandora’s Box of violence Southeast Asia’s ‘forgotten corner’ if not dealt with rapidly and effectively by all the countries in the region. Each of the neighboring states has something to lose, as extended destabilization there would ground any plans for implementing closer regional infrastructural projects and multilateral trade. The India-ASEAN Highway, envisioned to run from Northeast India through Myanmar and onwards to Thailand, is a significant plan for integrating one of the world’s largest economies (India) with some of the most dynamic (ASEAN), but the resumption of low-to-high-scale insurgency in the area would surely scuttle such designs.
Likewise, China’s vision of economically integrating its southwest provinces with Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India’s Northeast into a South Asian-style Silk Road would become blinded in the face of any of these countries entering into mutual hostility with the other, let alone the reappearance of the insurgency scenario. None of the previously explored negative forecasts that would obstruct deeper cooperation are necessarily guaranteed to transpire, but this is conditional upon the degree that the countries can cooperate in eliminating the threat of militarized transnational non-state actors within and around their borders. With each of the states having their own conflicting short-term interests, however, it may be that they bungle this historic opportunity for multilateral cooperation and inadvertently facilitate the creation of a Black Hole of Chaos that destabilizes each of them and deals a heavy blow to the emerging multipolar world.
Andrew Korybko is the political analyst and journalist for Sputnik who currently lives and studies in Moscow, exclusively for ORIENTAL REVIEW.